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February 02 Issue

Have I told you about me, recently?
George Olden
As a developed western society, we are obsessed with ourselves

Has there been any real change since the Millennium some 28 months ago?

Amongst the '100 Best of' lists, the irrelevant future predictions, and the sweeping historical summaries that filled the newspapers either side of the turn of the millennium, one thing stood out. Out of the tremendous media hype that surrounded the event, newspaper and television editors caught at the idea of a dawn of hope and optimism and it became the central theme of the celebration.

The turn of the century took on a new meaning for us all. The 1990s had been the decade of 'me,' but a burst of post-millennial optimism would usher in an era of 'us' instead. It would be an era of rediscovered communality, the media told us. We would discard our mobile phones and unplug ourselves from our Walkmans. We would travel on buses again (together!) instead of in our cars, and spend the time thinking and worrying about each other instead of solely about ourselves. Perhaps the defining image of it all was the release of thousands of white doves from Manger Square in Jerusalem. What a wonderful vision it was.

But the last time that I checked, it hadn't happened. Furthermore, the hope and optimism that a sanctimonious media promised us would be ushered in seems to have evaporated, and we're only in year two. Instead, we have extremist groups hijacking aeroplanes and the horror of September 11th, the election of far-right politicians in Austria, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the fall of Grozny, the crushing of Afghanistan, the rise of Le Pen in France on the back of fear of immigrants and increased hostilities between Israel and Palestine. So much for the doves.

Far from being the dawn of a brave new century, we have clearly slipped right back into the old one. The poor are still poor, the rich are still getting richer, AIDS is still spreading (particularly in Africa), and millions are still knocked out by a bout of 'flu. And, unsurprisingly, we are still thinking about ourselves all the time. People were self-obsessed before the millennium and nothing has changed. Indeed, the weeks leading up to the big event itself were ones of worrying about me - what will I do, where will I be, will I have a good time?

The Guardian and The Observer were the worst offenders for these false predictions. Recently, the headline 'Enough Of Me, Me, Me - Let's Talk About Us' filled the cover of the Guardian's Saturday magazine. The long feature article examined a selection of communal experiences and trends that were possibly a reaction to the rampant individualism of the 1990s, and concluded: "after years of fretting over Me, we might be on the brink of the decade of us."

Of course, the article is interpretative and provocative rather than definitive. It offers a cheeky resume of the previous decade's trends and at least takes an optimistic stance against the pessimism that dominates much of the rest of the media. Bad news sells, after all. But you don't need to be a hardened cynic to see the failings in the article. It assumed that the dawn of the new century really would usher in some kind of new age for human society. Unfortunately, everyone else saw through that media hype, and that the 'dawn of a new age' rhetoric was simply a marketing device to sell a few more newspapers.

The Observer also spoiled the effect of the article somewhat, by immediately launching a four-part series called 'The New You' in Life magazine. It was a complete guide to self-improvement for the Twenty-first century. It offered helpful tips on dieting, working out, personality development, and had a few pseudo-analytical articles with titles like 'Dejunk your Life.' But it had precious little to say about 'us.'

The fact is that the date may have changed but that is all - society remains much the same, except that the champagne producers are now sitting around counting up the piles of money they made. If ever there was a false dawn, then the millennium was it. And if anyone ever believed that one good party, a useless metal dome and a change of date would turn society on its head, then they were literally on another planet.

We continue to be bombarded with information focussing on the self. We are constantly urged to improve it. Magazines are full of self-improvement programmes or advice for the individual, from fashion and beauty tips in women's magazines to 'Tone that six-pack' regimes in Loaded or FHM, for whose readers a 'six-pack' realistically means nothing more than their evening drinking.

Television advertisements for toiletries reassure you that 'you're worth it' - yes, go out and spend a fortune on that skin cream which actually does absolutely nothing. 'It Could Be You' the Lottery reminds us, and perhaps there is no more powerfully selfish advertising slogan than that. It promises you heaven through individual gain - all that money just for you.

Self-improvement books for the individual sell by the million, on every subject from cookery and dieting to finances and Feng Shui. There is always at least one in the Top Five; this week's is 'Mars and Venus: 365 Ways to Keep Passion Alive' by John Gray, sitting at number four. Top of the list is the 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Quiz Book,' which has sold 337,000 copies. The odds may be terrible, but 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' is the ultimate chance for self-improvement. Remember, it could be you... I suspect that if you asked people what they would most like to change in their lives, a huge percentage would say they would have more money, as this has inextricably become linked with self-improvement.

The Internet is also full of self-help sites. There is 'Self Improvement Online,' the 'Self Improvement Channel,' or if you would prefer it, 'Unusual Alternatives for Self-Improvement' which urges you to 'KEEP AN OPEN MIND' when visiting their site's contents. There are thousands of them, and advice for every type of pain or problem, or any area of your life that you feel needs pepping up. The Internet itself has quickly gone from being a huge pool of free information based upon sharing, to become a corporate stalking ground and a device used to make individuals into overnight paper millionaires.

All of this adds up to a massive overload of self-improvement plans and lists coming at us from all angles. Of course, the truth is that they're just feeding demand. As a developed western society, we are obsessed with ourselves. There are standards and levels to aspire to, whether you want to be richer, thinner or browner. Almost nothing is good enough.

There is an even more dangerous result of this self-obsession. A natural result of self-obsession is that the rest of the world is forgotten about. So whilst we're busy worrying about ourselves, the rest of the world must get on with starving, or living under oppressive regimes, or struggling to feed their family.

Whilst in the west people get excited about the Internet and new mobile phone technology, the majority of the world's population have yet to make their first phone call. Global starvation should be the driving issue that all governments are addressing; instead it is left to rock stars, comedians and charity groups to campaign about. Thousands of young girls still develop anorexia or bulimia attempting to fit themselves into society's accepted norms of perfection. Plastic surgery grows in popularity, and gene manipulation seems headed towards designer babies, creating perfection.

Western society thinks only of itself. Britain and America are full of people who never question what is around them, but spend plenty of time worrying about themselves. For a lot of people, the grass is always greener no matter how much they have. We need to wake up. There is a whole world out there worrying not about whether they can get a signal on their mobile phone or if they're developing a double chin, but where their next meal is coming from, where various members of their family have disappeared to, or when the war will end.

But it's probably too late. Whatever we do now, we may one day go down in history as Generation Selfish. Perhaps we should start worrying about that.


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